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Garden

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Because the tree of heaven is a prolific seed producer as well as extremely hardy, it is considered invasive here. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

Many years ago, my father pointed out some wild trees to me. He called them “stinkweed” trees, he said because close up, they smelled bad. Yes, they were wild — a weed and very hardy.

I hadn’t seen them in years, possibly because home gardeners generally don’t plant them and oak and pine are the native species most commonly found growing on Long Island. Recently, I came across a number of trees growing wild, which, to me, resembled the stinkweed trees from when I was a kid. Doing a bit of research, I discovered that yes, the trees I saw were indeed stinkweed trees. They were, in fact, Ailanthus altissima, also known as the tree of heaven.

A native of China, the tree’s Chinese name — chouchun — literally means “foul smelling tree,” i.e., stinkweed tree. Due to its many negative characteristics, some people refer to it as the “tree of hell,” rather than tree of heaven. Parts of the tree feature in traditional Chinese medicine as an astringent and as a food for silkworms so it has been grown there extensively.

The tree was first brought to Europe and then the United States in the late 1700s. The tree is now seen as an undesirable here for several reasons. One is that it produces suckers, meaning that it can easily spread, especially in disturbed areas. Another is its bad smell. It also appears to be able to suppress some competition by producing a chemical, ailanthone, that prevents other plants from growing in the area. This is known as allelopathy. Probably the best known allelopathic tree is the black walnut, but sunflowers seem to have the same ability.

The “tree” in the Betty Smith novel, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” was the tree of heaven, found growing wild in New York City lots — yes that weed. The tree is hardy and in the book becomes a metaphor for a young girl’s family that survives adversity.

Since the tree is a rapid grower, it can force out native plants. It grows under a wide range of unfavorable conditions including poor soil and pollution. This opportunistic plant does well in disturbed areas (the way poison ivy does). It needs full sun and spreads by both seeds and root sprouts.  Part of the reason it does so well is the fact that it has a tap root and we know what that means — in drought conditions it survives because the root goes way down into deeper levels of soil that still contain moisture. The Nature Conservancy suggests that seedlings be pulled out should you find them in your garden.

The Pennsylvania State Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ website notes that there are “hundreds of thousands of seeds per tree … and a cut or injured ailanthus tree may send up dozens of root suckers and resprouts, creating large clonal colonies.”

Ailanthus altissima is on Suffolk County’s Management list, meaning it is considered invasive here, and it is recommended that the tree not be planted, especially near public land, although it is legal to do so. A rapid grower, it can easily reach close to 50 feet tall or more.

Incidentally, the tree of heaven is not the only tree with really foul smelling parts. The fruit of the ginkgo does as well. Most nurseries only sell male ginkgo trees, which do not produce fruit, hence no bad smell.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. Send your gardening questions and/or comments to leisure@tbrnewspapers.com. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.

The Girl Scouts of Suffolk County and the Little Scientists club joined county Legislator Sarah Anker (D-Mount Sinai), Heritage Trust, the Long Island Native Plant Initiative and members of the Cornell University Cooperative Extension to plant local native species in Anker’s Educational Agriculture Support Initiative pilot garden Tuesday at Heritage Park in Mount Sinai.

The Girl Scouts, alongside their younger counterparts from the Little Scientists club, got down in the dirt and planted several native plants, including various types of milkweed which attract monarch butterflies and other native pollinators to the area.

According to the National Wildlife Federation, monarch butterflies and other native pollinators to Long Island have decreased in numbers by more than 80 percent in the past two decades. Native bee populations are also on the decline. With this decline in native pollinators, Anker hopes to educate people about the importance of native plants and pollinators in the environment.

But before members of the LINPI and Cornell Cooperative Extension helped the Girl Scouts and Little Scientists plant flowers and plants in the pilot garden, Anker gathered the children and tested their knowledge on the importance of native plants and pollinators.

Michelle Skoblicki created the Little Scientists club four years ago. The program caters to children from pre-K to fifth grade, and its goal, according to Skoblicki, is to provide these kids with a means to expand their knowledge about science through hands-on activities, literature and art.

Skoblicki recently taught the kids about life cycles using butterflies, and hopes to release the butterflies they raised in the pilot garden by the end of the week.

“We were hoping to have them ready for the garden but they were still in their chrysalises,” Skoblicki said.

Members of the Girl Scouts also helped plant native plants in the garden; and Maris Lynch, who is involved in her third event as a Girl Scout, was simply happy to help.

The launch was the first event for Girl Scouts Analynn Bisiani and Lindsey Galligan. Bisiani said she was happy to participate and was having fun.

“I would definitely do this again,” Bisiani said.

Galligan was one of several kids who grasped Anker’s message.

“Plant are … a very important part of our community,” Galligan said. “They help insects which help us — and that’s that.”

Anker was excited for the launch and hopes to continue spreading the word about the importance of pollinators and the native plants they need.

“When your kids, when your grandkids or great grandkids are here at the park, I want them to experience everything that I’m experiencing now,” the county legislator said. “If we don’t do something now, we’ll loose this forever.”

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Hydrangea macrophylla. Photo by Ellen Barcel

By Ellen Barcel

In many of my previous columns, I’ve talked about the benefits of using compost and compost tea on your plants. Let’s start with some basic information on what compost is and how to make it.

Compost is decayed organic matter. It’s full of nutrients and makes a great fertilizer for plants. Compost aerates clay soil and helps to hold moisture in sandy soil, so it improves soil structure. Making your own compost keeps waste out of the land fill. It also ensures that you can keep pesticides and other chemicals out of the compost and therefore out of your soil.

There are two types of compost piles, hot and cold. The hot pile raises the temperature of the ingredients to at least 135 degrees. There are several benefits of a hot compost pile. One is that many damaging organisms, like plant bacteria, are killed in a hot pile. Another is that the hot pile decomposes more quickly. Add equal parts green and brown matter, grass clippings and dry leaves, for example, all finely chopped and mixed together. Smaller pieces will decompose more quickly than larger ones. Add some manure in the ratio of 1/3 to 2/3 plant matter for a hot pile or add some blood and bone fertilizer.

A cold compost pile takes longer to decompose, but you need to be less concerned with ratios, manure, etc. Never put diseased leaves in a cold pile. You’re just saving the disease organisms for the next season. Actually, I never put diseased plant parts in any compost pile, just to be on the safe side. Make sure that you keep the compost pile moist or the plant matter will not decompose. Think about the Egyptian mummies, in the desert for thousands of years, yet not decomposed. Periodically turn the pile over. If you use one of the rotating composters on a stand, this step is very easy.

What goes in the compost pile? Any healthy green plant matter, but not woody as it takes too long to decompose, and lawn clippings; coffee grounds and used tea bags; paper towels; and kitchen peelings including apple cores, orange peels, etc. — keep a closed container in the kitchen to collect them and then periodically bring them out to the garden — crushed eggshells and manure from herbivores, such as cows and horses.

Do not add protein, such as leftover meat, which draws critters and is slow to decompose; fatty substances; manure from carnivores, such as dogs and cats, as it can transmit disease; and diseased plant parts.

Compost can be applied as a top dressing or lightly dug into the soil, being careful to avoid surface roots of plants. It can also be mixed into the soil when you transplant or add a new plant to the garden.

If you choose not to make your own compost, but acquire it from other sources, remember that you don’t know what has been used to make that compost. It may be exactly as you would make yourself or not. If you are keeping a strictly organic garden, this can be a problem. For example, whoever made the compost may have used insecticides on the plant matter or weed killers. I used to get compost from a local free source only to find pieces of broken glass in it along with pieces of wire. So, always wear your gardening gloves to protect your hands.

Next week, making compost tea.

Ellen Barcel is a freelance writer and master gardener. To reach Cornell Cooperative Extension and its Master Gardener program, call 631-727-7850.